Why is China's top judge marking his presence at HK event?

September 25, 2015 15:12
Zhou Qiang (inset, right) has earned the displeasure of many Hong Kong people due to his utterances following the suspicious death of rights activist Li Wangyang three years ago. Photos: HKEJ, Xinhua

Hong Kong will hold a ceremony Friday to mark the move of the Court of Final Appeal into new premises in Central, officially giving it a permanent home in the former Legislative Council building.

Legal circles are attaching great significance to the event as the building had originally housed the city's Supreme Court in the last century before it was put to use for the Legco from 1985 to 2011. 

Amid all the excitement and fanfare, there is however one thing that is prompting raised eyebrows: the guest list for the ceremony.

Among the various attendees will be Zhou Qiang, the Chief Justice of China and the President of the Supreme People’s Court.

According to a media invite, Zhou will be a top guest of honor at the opening ceremony, along with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the central government's liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming.

Now, questions are being asked as to why the mainland judge is marking his presence in Hong Kong, whose judicial system has little in common with that in China.

As records could show that Zhou opened the Hong Kong court building, what will it mean for the local judiciary's future in relation to Beijing?

The worries are not unfounded, given the controversial remarks made recently by liaison office chief Zhang on the powers enjoyed by Hong Kong's leader.

During a speech a couple of weeks ago, Zhang said the chief executive has overriding power on all branches of the government, including the judiciary, and that separation of powers is not suitable for the city.

The comments drew a flurry of criticism, with observers interpreting the words as another reflection of Beijing's attempts to undermine the independence of Hong Kong's judiciary and "one country, two systems".

Even Hong Kong's top judge, Geoffrey Ma, felt compelled to issue an indirect rebuke, as he stressed publicly that no one is above the law and that judicial independence is guaranteed by the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution. 

Hong Kong and China courts operate two different systems, and the courts on each side cannot interfere in each other's cases.

China's top judge has no authority in Hong Kong, while Hong Kong courts have no power to participate into China court hearings.

So, there is no reason for the government or the judiciary to bring Zhou as a special guest for Friday's ceremony.

Even on a personal level, Hong Kong people do not have any illusions about Zhou, who was the party secretary of Hunan province three years ago when veteran Chinese labor activist Li Wangyang was found dead under suspicious circumstances in a hospital.

While observers raised questions about the activist's death, suggesting that he may have been killed by someone from the establishment, Zhou was vehement that it was a case of suicide.

"The fact that Li committed suicide is crystal clear... with verified evidence," he said, after authorities declared that Li had hanged himself after being released from jail.

News of Li's death, which took place a year after he served a two-decade long jail sentence for "counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement" following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, prompted thousands of Hong Kong people to stage a rally against Beijing.

Demonstrators called for an inquiry into the death and suspicious cremation of the rights activist, but Zhou insisted that there was no need for such action.

Given such background of Zhou, one wonders why authorities made him a guest of honor for the opening of the new premises of the Court of Final Appeal.

It's not clear whose idea exactly it was to invite Zhou for the ceremony. But from Beijing's perspective, he could perhaps use the trip to elaborate on how the judiciary can work with the administration and legislature in Hong Kong, just like what he does in China.

The mainland judge could suggest that Hong Kong courts lend a helping hand to the government to implement its policy objectives, even if it means going against the public opinion.

Such attempt wouldn't be surprising given the challenges the Leung administration is facing after it failed to push through a key electoral reforms bill in June.

But mainland officials should bear in mind that Hong Kong people as well as the legal community will push back against any effort to influence the course of judicial action. 

The Court of Final Appeal is the final appellate court within the court system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and plays an important part in the development of the common law in the city.

As Zhou mingles with top legal and political figures in Hong Kong following the ceremony Friday, we can only speculate what issues the mainland guest will bring up for discussion.

Meanwhile, we have one suggestion -- not for Zhou but for Ma, the top Hong Kong judge.  

Why not use the opportunity of Zhou's visit to reaffirm that Hong Kong's judicial independence is not negotiable and that the city's core values will be protected regardless of Beijing's political interests?

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EJ Insight writer